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Community Advocacy Organization

The Night Democracy Died-Derrick Knox Jr. and the Poor People's Campaign

Pastor Derrick Knox Jr.-Photo Credit-Mr. Alvin Holloway

When you tell a joke and describe a typical law firm as Duey Screwum & Howe attorneys at law, there is room to see the humor. When the collected facts depict a real-life and death situation, it’s not so funny. “There seems to be a disconnect when it comes to legislation that protects lives of color and poor folks,” said Pastor Derrick Knox Jr. of the Poor Peoples Campaign.

On the one hand, you wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and realize that you are black and want somebody else to do something. The issues surrounding race relations are not that simple. Systemic racism runs deep. According to American history books, Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. In August 1518, King Charles I authorized Spain to ship enslaved people directly from Africa to the Americas. The edict marked a new phase in the transatlantic slave trade in which the numbers of enslaved people brought now to the Americas—without going through a European port first—rose dramatically. On March 22, 1765, the American revolution began. This was a fight for freedom from British Rule. Battle cries like “no taxation without representation” and “the shots heard around the world” helped rally the troops. The declaration of independence was signed on July 4, 1765. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This was supposed the end slavery. African Americans were prohibited from participating in the Civil War because of a law dating back to 1792 not allowing people of color to carry arms. The Emancipation Proclamation changed that law.

The verbiage to begin the Declaration of Independence is as follows:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

The history lesson is because the concept of human inequality, while it did not start in America, continued amidst a supposed fight for freedom.

Fast forward to 2021, 503 years later, and the battle for injustice and inequality rages on. The definition of democracy is a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

Courtesy Photo-The Poor People's Campaign

Pastor Knox from the Poor Peoples Campaign is very much aware of the continued struggles. "One of our struggles is bridging the cross-generational gap that exists today," said Knox. "There is a way that people have been used doing things. That way has been navigated through a systemically racist process." Pastor Knox is a member of a generation that was born in the 1980s. "We are fed up with the entire racist process and don't want to operate within that system anymore," said Knox.

The Poor Peoples Campaign is trying to open a community dialogue to come up with ways to bridge the gap. "The realization that from a relational and spiritual standpoint where we're in a rebuilding stage or process as a country," explained Knox. "We need to take advantage of the rebuilding process in a strategic way that tears down the systemic racism within our society.”

On the local level, the Poor Peoples Campaign makes sure they have all of their ducks in a row. They have plans to open a community center. “The center will be available for every member of society,” said Knox. “These plans include everyone.” The community center is located at 500 E. Thomas St., in Lansing. "It's the old Otto Middle School," says Knox. "It's a 200,020 square foot facility that sits on 18 acres of land,” Knox noted that there are plans to build affordable housing and create urban farming. At the community center, they plan to offer recreational services, skill trade services, cosmetology training, technology training, a daycare facility, an open gym with basketball leagues, and a pool that will be used for aqua fitness. We envision the center as a one-stop-shop for the whole community."

Courtesy Photo-The Poor People's Campaign

Knox's agenda is the fight for 98 families struggling in a horrible situation at the Porter Apartments. "We are lobbying for justice on all fronts," says Knox. "Lansing has a huge gap when it comes to housing advocacy. We have a lot of programs, but red tape prevents substantive progress. The current system gives the voice and the power to the owners of the property and no say whatsoever to the people who have to live in those slum-like conditions.”

Another area of concern is criminal justice. Michigan's Governor Gretchen Witmer just signed a Clean Slate Bill. "One gentleman has reached out to me," said Knox. "He has been in prison for 11 years. The crime involved a truck owned by him. He was not part of the crime. The individuals who did the crime each served a few years in jail. The black owner of the truck used in the crime received a jail sentence 4 times that of the white criminals prosecuted for the crime. There is something wrong with this system. It doesn’t begin to make sense.”

Knox is advocating for the formation of a council to evaluate cases like the gentleman doing 11 years in jail. Knox noted that he was in conversation with the Governor's office, which is not an isolated occurrence. There are hundreds of similar cases. "This is clear-cut injustice," said Knox. "He should not spend another day in jail, and something needs to be done about cases like this immediately.”

The case of Anthony Hulon, age 54, is alarming. He was killed in a Lasing jail, and his relatives had to file a lawsuit to get the details surrounding his death. Issues of a non-transparent police force and police brutality cause deep seeded community trust issues. "Hulon had a reaction to drugs given to him by police who sedated him; and then physically took him down for not cooperating while in jail,” explained Knox. “He was pleading for his life saying, “I cannot breathe,” while four police officers kneeling on Hulon ignored his cries for help.”

The top five concerns for the Poor People's Campaign in Lansing are

(1) Inequities in education.

(2) Lack of community involvement around racial equity and on issues affecting the community at large.

(3) Access to healthy foods through urban farming.

(4) Housing (colossal issue), and

(5) Healthcare.

While the Poor People's Campaign advocates primarily for poor people and marginalized demographics, some issues go beyond black and white. Hulon is white. "These issues go beyond a color barrier," said Knox. "There are and should be basic human rights. At the end of the day, if we cannot agree that everyone has a right to live, we have a humanity problem!”

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